Eli5 what is populism?



Eli5 what is populism?

In: Other

A political style that tries to appeal to the general public and their needs instead of the “elite”, wealthy, and powerful.

It can be used as an insult when a politician is accused of doing something that’s popular with voters rather than doing something that’s better for the country, but harder to accept.

It’s a political strategy aimed at “ordinary people” or “the populace” who feel that most politicians only cater to the elite and don’t understand their problems. No intention of taking a political side here (but it is a political subject, so) for example this was done very well by Donald Trump in 2016.

Populism is a catch-all term for political ideologies and styles that are meant to appeal to the general populace, particularly at the expense of the wealthy, powerful, and/or academic “elite” of a given nation (alternatively; populism inherently seeks to “other” a segment of the population seen as having undue power or influence over society). In the current era, that typically takes the format of political movements or parties that are broadly “against” globalization and free markets and are in favor of protectionist economic policy, and aren’t that squeamish about government spending, particularly on jobs and/or social programs. However, it doesn’t really have a strict social/religious ideological basis; instead, the social end of a populist government would cater to whatever social positions are most popular within a given nation. Thus, populism is available in both left- and right-leaning varieties.

For examples; the Trump wing of the Republican party in the US would almost certainly qualify as right-populist, whereas the Sanders wing of the Democratic party, and the progressives in general, would qualify as left-populist. The various Labour parties of the former British Empire would also, generally, be described as left-populist, particularly the Corbyn wing of British Labour. Elsewhere, many of the various controversial politicians that came to power around the same time as Trump (e.g. AMLO in Mexico, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, etc.) are populists.

For their more extreme variants; communism, anarcho-socialism, Nazism, and fascism are all broadly under the “populist” umbrella.

Edit: the political antonym of populism isn’t defined all that well, but could probably be described as “institutionalism” or (more derogatorily) “elitism,” wherein people would believe that smaller, powerful institutions working within a government, and within society in general, should be in charge of setting policy. However, those institutions would necessarily funnel a lot of power into the hands of a relatively smaller cadre of society, hence why it’s “elitist.”

As others have stated, it’s an appeal to “the population at large” rather than “elites”. But those descriptions leave a lot to be desired.

Populism is about appealing to groups that believe they best represent a country’s population, and othering groups that don’t belong to that group. The groups that are othered get painted as elites or foreign agents that have no right to an opinion on how things should work. Populism generally involves a leader suggesting they’re the only one capable of representing the will of the public, and that traditional checks and balances only serve the elite and will get in the way of delivering the things the people want, i.e. the leader will need to consolidate power in order to be effective.


Its a style of rethoric focused on a specific part of the population. Usually, the majority. The main hallmarks of populism is a strong “us vs them” type of rethoric, and is widely used on all sides of the political spectrum.

Populism is usually characterized by finding a population target that all share some type of characteristic. That characteristic is then amplified to make it appear to be defining for that part of the population, and then whoever is using this tactic, claims to represent the people who identify with that characteristic.

So to illustrate, a common characteristic that many people share is their nationality. So if you want to “represent the american people”, you have to first define who is allowed to be American, maybe you say you have to be christian to be american. This will mean that if anyone argues against christian values you can denounce them for being anti-american, and never have to actually argue their views. Your supporters will support you since you represent them, not because of your actual opinions.

The second thing you have to do, is to get people to identify with that identity. There may be christians who do not care about being american, that means you have to get them to think being american is an important trait. And therefore anyone who is arguing against religion, is arguing against americans, and is therefore arguing against the voters.

Populism works best on any part of the population that feel oppressed, they do not have to be oppressed, they just need to feel like it. And if they dont you can make them feel like it.

Common ways of making a native population feel oppressed and attacked can be saying things like

“The immigrants are taking our jobs”
“The immigrants are living on social security”
“The immigrants rape and kill us”

By saying things such as these you are painting the supporters as victims, and therefore anyone who goes against the group is attacking those supporters. And since you decide where that group goes, anyone who opposes you also opposes every single supporter personally, since if they are anti-you, they are also anti-american, and since the supporters are anti-american, that means they hate the supporters personally.

Its about giving simple solutions to complex problems. A populist will rarely say **how** they are going to fix a problem, just that they are going to do it. At most they may give some very basic idea of how.

For example:

Candidate: I will stop crime

Voter: How?

Candidate: Arm the police and kick out the criminals

Voter: Isnt arming the police going to lead to more violence? And there are laws in this country about kicking out people. Its not possible to kick out every single criminal.

Candidate: No, we have shown these beasts mercy for far too long and you are part of the problem. By hamstringing our police you are responsible for the deaths of crime in the last decade, by supporting the current government you are commiting murder. No good person would ever think of giving these criminals more room to grow.

tl;dr: populism = us good, them bad.